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The Revolution Will Be Organized: Power and Protest in Brazil's New Republic, 1988-2018

  • Author(s): McKenna, Elizabeth Carole;
  • Advisor(s): Loveman, Mara;
  • et al.

Why does authoritarianism sometimes prevail against the backdrop of a seemingly robust civil society? What are the organizational conditions under which collective action translates into political influence? In this dissertation, I use a prospective study of contemporary politics in Brazil to investigate these two questions. Individual chapters address related but more specific puzzles about how political parties, fractions of capital, social movements, and civil society organizations across the ideological spectrum wield (or attempt to wield) political power in times of rupture.

I conducted the research over a five-year period, two years of which were spent in the field, and employed a sequential mixed methods design. I draw on 221 interviews and secondary survey data to situate the study in historical perspective, and longitudinal network analysis to track the strategic interactions of 40 civil society groups as they attempted to build power in the face of a high-stakes presidential election and welfare state retrenchment.

I found that the political dominance of plutocrats, right-wing protesters, and Pentecostals in this historical moment in Brazil was intimately linked to a concomitant trend of atomization and depoliticization—or anti-politics—in progressive civic spaces. Well before Jair Bolsonaro came to power in 2019, the organizational sinews that once characterized Brazil’s leftist, member-led, self-governing civil society groups had atrophied.

From these findings, I elaborate a theoretical model that helps explain civil society groups' differential ability to advance their interests via the state—that is, to act politically. I argue that their variable levels of influence can be understood as a function of three factors: 1) Their source of power, whether control over economic, judicial-bureaucratic, cultural, or civic resources; and 2) their organizational capacity, which I analyze by developing a general typology of atomized, corporatist, networked, and hierarchical structural forms. I argue that these two features subsequently influenced the 3) range of strategies to which different groups have access when responding to unexpected events—both setbacks and openings—as the political terrain shifts. The strong version of this claim is that structure generates strategy: whether, how, and the extent to which key civil society groups are organized helps explain the degree and kind of power that they wield, and therefore, the type of political regime that prevails in a nation-state.

The major implications of the study are twofold. First, I show that the organization and articulation processes that happen in the wake of critical events can be more consequential to the political balance of power than the events themselves. Organizing strategies (and lack thereof) critically affect the conditions that give rise to or protect against authoritarian politics. Second, I argue that although the case is coincident with a global right-wing tilt, political transformations like the transition from Lulismo to Bolsonarismo in Brazil are neither inexorable nor are they structurally determined. Instead, strategic actors—their contingency plans and their failures to contingency plan—must be central to any account of dramatic movements in the political terrain.

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